“England take firm grip of second Test as James Vince and Mark Stoneman lead the way”.
“Vince and Stoneman give England scent of victory”.
“England build commanding lead on the back of Stoneman and Vince”.
Those conscious of the date, April 1, might have initially perceived those and other headlines with suspicion after seeking out the overnight news from the Christchurch Test.
“What? England on top and runs for Stoneman and Vince? Yeah, right - April Fool!”.
But this was no wind-up to rival Yorkshire CCC’s own annual April 1 jape, which this year saw the launch of a ‘Batsman Virtual Reality Headset’, enabling spectators to see what a batsman sees in the middle – all at the giveaway price (albeit not financially so) of £1418 (think calendar dates) and developed by the company ‘Alforo Display’ (think anagrams).
The headlines, as it turned out, were kosher, with the under-pressure Vince and Stoneman indeed helping England take control, Vince scoring 76 and Stoneman 60 as the tourists ended day three on 202-3 in their second innings, 231 ahead.
But before we all rushed out to buy Yorkshire’s new ‘Batsman Virtual Reality Headset’, a concept that might not be too far off in these innovative days, it felt pertinent to recall the words of England coach Trevor Bayliss just before the Ashes. “Batsmen scoring 60s is not enough,” he said. “We need 160s.” In other words, half-centuries are only half a job done.
No one will be more acutely aware of that than Stoneman and Vince, who are still seeking their first three-figure contribution at Test level.
Between them, it is fair to say that they have had enough goes at finding it; Stoneman has had 18 innings (with yesterday’s score the highest of his five half-centuries) and Vince 22 (including three half-centuries).
Forty innings combined, therefore, and no century is hardly a return befitting players in a Test match top three. Stoneman’s average stands at 30.1 and Vince’s at 24.9, highlighting their ongoing trials and tribulations.
Although grateful for their efforts in Christchurch, where the tourists are well-placed to end a run of 10 defeats and no wins in their last 12 away Tests, the England management could be forgiven for having mixed feelings about Stoneman and Vince’s performance yesterday.
Frankly, it was the worst of all outcomes in terms of planning ahead, their scores neither good enough to suggest that they can eventually cement their places nor poor enough to necessarily warrant de-selection for the forthcoming two-Test series at home to Pakistan.
England will leave New Zealand, indeed, with no clearer idea as to their best top-order, with questions remaining against Stoneman, Vince, Alastair Cook, Dawid Malan, the best position for Joe Root and whether Jonny Bairstow should be higher than No.7.
Those outside the Test team will be hoping to stake a claim in the early weeks of the County Championship season, but England are no wiser now than they were at the start of the winter when they took on Australia.
Back then, you may remember, it all started so promisingly for Stoneman and Vince on the opening day of the Ashes in Brisbane. Vince made 83 and Stoneman 53, the pair sharing 125 for the second wicket.
Yesterday, their partnership was worth 123 to bookend an otherwise disappointing winter in personal terms. Once again, we were left with a feeling of deja vu. Decent-ish scores? Tick. Frustrating dismissals? Tick. At Christchurch, both fell to catches behind the wicket, flashing hard outside off stump.
Stoneman, who was dropped twice, does not appear to have the permanence that a Test opener should, while Vince again played like a man who should be averaging 50 only for substance to once more play second fiddle to style.
There are times when Vince bats like a right-handed version of a famous player born on April 1, David Gower, but the scorebook contains no column for artistic merit.
One man who has enough credit in enough scorebooks the world over is Cook, whose own winter has been depressingly poor.
Take out his unbeaten double hundred in the Boxing Day Test and his scores in the Tests against Australia and New Zealand have been: 2, 7, 37, 16, 7, 14, 39, 10, 5, 2, 2 and 14.
According to Graham Thorpe, the England batting coach, Cook remains “hungry” in his 34th year.
There is no suggestion that he will be dropped for the Pakistan series; if Cook still wants to continue, then surely he will, perhaps to another productive summer in home conditions.